Why ‘The Office’s’ Filming Style Often Resembled ‘Survivor’
Launching the careers of several cast members including Steve Carell, John Krasinski, and Jenna Fischer, the show was known for its unique “mockumentary” style of filming. Turns out the sitcom may have gotten some tips from the Survivor set.
‘The Office’ heads to the States
Created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, The Office originally debuted on BBC. On the air in the UK from 2001 to 2003, the sitcom’s “mockumentary” style seemed well-suited for British audiences. Yet network execs were concerned how the show would be received when the comedy was brought over to America. As somewhat of a safeguard, producers chose to copy the original show verbatim for the NBC pilot.
“The pilot was pretty much word-for-word the British show, which I know we weren’t all super excited about,” Krasinski (who played Jim Halpert) told Andy Greene for his book The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s. “But we could understand why we had to do it to see how it stacked up against the other show.”
Gervais was confident the show would be on better footing once it found its own voice and style.
“I thought it was odd they just redid our pilot,” he said. “I don’t know why they did that – I thought there was no point to it. It got better when they went on their own.”
NBC sitcom filmed like a documentary
Using the “mockumentary” format, The Office producers filmed typical scenes as well as “talking head” interviews to reflect a documentary style.
“As an actor, I loved knowing the difference between when we would talk about ‘does Pam know the camera is on’ or ‘Pam doesn’t know,’ and how there are little differences in how we act,” Fischer told Andy Greene, author of The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s.
Director and cinematographer Randall Einhorn specifically plotted out scenes using the perspective of a documentary filmmaker.
“I thought heavily a lot about what the attitude of the documentarians’ [was],” he said in Greene’s book. “They cannot be ahead of the action. They have to be slightly behind the action of what the audience is seeing.”
Straight from ‘Survivor’
Einhorn was one of show runner Greg Daniels’ first hires. Formerly a camera operator and director of photography on several outdoor adventure shows including the CBS hit Survivor, Einhorn was able to recruit a whole team of camera operators from the popular reality show.
“The genius of Greg Daniels is the fact that he hired the guys that shot Survivor,” director Paul Feig said. “He hired an actual documentary crew to shoot it, knowing that they knew how to follow the action and when to zoom.”
Kate Flannery, who played Meredith Palmer on the show, likened their directing style to that of filming a safari. “They perfected the art of shooting us like animals in the wild,” she noted.
Krasinski would often be surprised by the sudden appearance of one of the camera operators. “You could see why Randall did Survivor,” Krasinski recalled. “He would appear next to you and you had no idea that he was there.”
Actor Creed Bratton knew he was dealing with experts in their craft. “When you’re with guys who’ve gone down canoes in Borneo being chased by cannibals, you know you’re in good hands,” The Office alum told Greene. “You’re not going to get hurt with these guys. They were revered… They still are.”